Friday Flashback Five: Week of December 3, 2001

It’s the end of the week, and of course that means it’s time for another Friday Flashback Five!  Each week, we go through five random games that debuted this week in history, and this week is no different. This week, we’re cranking the Wayback Machine for the week of December Third, ‘Oh-One.

A whole host of games came out this week of the holiday season, many licensed games or part of established series to capitalize on the holiday spending that many parents did (and do) for their kids.  Some were great, some were tripe, but then there were the other gems—the ones that took something established, like a setting or a gaming element, and turned it around to make the player look at it from a different angle.  As ever, games truly ran the gamut this week.

Now for the usual disclaimers: Where possible, I’ve included links to Let’s Plays, play-throughs, game-play videos, and so on.  Some, many, most, or all might well be utterly infused with profanity and vulgarity.  Keep that in mind as you ready your clicking-finger.  Also, this isn’t a “top” or “bottom” list.  It’s just a look back at five random games from our hobby’s history and a peek at what effect they may or may not have had.

With that out of the way, let’s get it on!

Giants: Citizen Kabuto
It’s difficult to describe this game succinctly and go anywhere near doing it justice.  Sure, you could say that Giants: Citizen Kabuto is a real-time strategy game with an emphasis on action that takes place on a world that’s contested ground for three separate races.  You could say it has more of a third-person shooter interface, complete with a selection of weaponry one would expect.  You can even say that the game takes pains to step away from what players might expect.  But—is any of that enough?  Does any of that come even close to what the game is truly about?

Not even the same postal code.

Imagine going on the kind of vacations that were popular in the ‘Sixties and what we can’t expand on in a family-friendly blog, and coming out of it with a video game.  That’s basically what you have with Giants.  Take just the resource-management.  You have Smarties and Vimps, and you;d be forgiven for thinking that they were just odd names for things like minerals and gaseous fumes.  No, my friend, Smarties and Vimps are just two of the other forms of life on the planet.

Each race uses them differently, too.  The “Let’s make it go SPLODY” Meccs gather Smarties to build their bases, armories, defenses, and so on, and they feed the Vimps to the Smarties to keep them working.  The magic-using Sea Reapers gather Smarties with magic bubbles to take them under the see and build their bases, while harvesting Vimps’ souls for energy.  The ambulatory-tank Kabuto race doesn’t worry about bases and the like, since they’re freaking huge.  They can just steamroll or butt-flop onto anything, so they eat Smarties and Vimps for fuel.  The former is consumed for health, the latter letting a Kabuto lay miniature versions of itself to help with the smashing.

Even all of that comes no closer than barely hinting at the fun oddity that is Giants.  Luckily, there’s a play-through of it, which can be found here.

Rising Sun
When most gamers think of war games, they think of things like Call of Duty, or any one of a hundred other titles where players take the role of the Allies.  Rising Sun did things a bit different, though it’d be more familiar to gamers who played more turn-based war games.

The game was played on a hex grid with platoons, with movement and combat taking place simultaneously as players alternate turns.  Each unit had “action points”, which could be spent on things like firing a weapon, moving, or a combination thereof.  Scenarios used a large variety of units, as things like artillery, infantry, air support, and more all played a part.

There was a lot of detail in the mechanics, though the user interface was kept easy to use.  Though the game was complex as to seem daunting to new players, there was an in-depth tutorial devoted to helping the player understand the many, many elements involved without making them feel lost at any point.  If one liked war games to any extent, this was a title to check out.

American McGee’s Alice
Most gamers have at least heard of American McGee’s Alice.  It was a dark and quirky take on a dark on quirky tale, reinventing the lighter and sillier notions most of us had of the story thanks to the incredibly popular animated movie.  It did a great job of displaying that darker aspect, though it was hindered by the game play itself.

The story was interesting, and something a few other stories have tried—after her journeys through Wonderland, Alice was driven right bonkers by the experience, and put in an asylum (and keep in mind this isn’t the rubber room experiences interspersed with talk therapy that are many mental institutions today; back in the late Nineteenth Century and for a large amount of the Twentieth Century, straight jackets and electro-shock therapy were standard).  To reclaim her sanity, Alice must wander through a mental reconstruction of Wonderland.

It was actually a decent story, and told with really nifty visuals.  Based on the Quake III: Arena engine, the surrealistic almost Dali-inspired world was depicted rather well.  Even better, though, were the character models.  From the card soldiers to the Cheshire Cat to Alice herself, everyone looked, well, wonderful.  They looked great and moved great—and everything was backed up with suitable mood music.

The downside, though, was the game play itself.  It was more of a generic third-person shooter, really, than anything else.  The puzzles were few and simple, generally not requiring much in the way of actual thought—a moment or two of trial and error saw the player through most of them.  The game was also very linear—you get to a room, race around a little to get from point A to point B, maybe jump a bit, then get to the next room and do it again.  The combat was rather bland—not terrible, but not really interesting, either, mainly the fault of the poor enemy artificial intelligence scripting.

Ultimately, it was a game the player would either love or be utterly bored by.  It told an interesting story, had intriguing visuals, and it was violent but in a weird, Wonderland sort of way—but as a game, it was somewhat bland.

An informational Let’s Play can be found here.

Riddle of the Sphinx: An Egyptian Adventure
Absolutely not related to the earlier game of a very similar name on the Atari, Riddle of the Sphinx: An Egyptian Adventure was a far better game than many would have expected.  It took a Myst-style adventure game play—static backgrounds and such—and gave the player beautiful backdrops through which they explored ruins and solved puzzles.

Taking the role of a modern-day archaeologist, the player must discover why the protagonist’s mentor has disappeared.  The mentor had left behind clues that the player must decipher so the protagonist can fish the man’s work.  It was, really, little more than a reason for the player to work through the puzzles.  Speaking of said puzzles, they were mostly great—difficult, but mostly logical.  Most players would even now find the game very challenging to complete, and there would be plenty of times when the player would smack their head and exclaim, “I can’t believe I missed that clue!”  There were a few moments when they got—frustrating, or downright odd, but those moments were few and far between.

That the puzzles were good isn’t even the extraordinary thing, though.  The extraordinary bit is developer Omni Creative.  Now, the company is a large-ish company, but ten years ago—it was literally a mom-and-pop operation.  Sphinx was programmed by primarily Jeffery Tobler and his wife Karen.  There were a few other, supplementary, members of the team—but most of them had the last name of Tobler as well.  Sphinx was a labor of love, and it shows.  It was a pretty good game on its own, much better than its largely-forgotten status would have one believe—but the game is much more impressive is how “home-brew” the game essentially was.  There were titles put out by big-name developers that weren’t as good as Sphinx.

Theme Park Roller Coaster
An update of sorts of Sim Theme Park, Theme Park Roller Coaster was what one would expect from a “Sim” game.  It was a loose simulation of something, in this case running a roller coaster in a theme park.  The goals ultimately revolved around golden tickets, and instead of using them for admittance into a magical factory, they were used to unlock other theme parks.  To be surprisingly nice to the player, the game lined out right from the get-go what the goals entailed and what the player would get for achieving them (this was refreshing because the earlier game offered what can be nicely called “hints” as to what you had to do).

The game play was pretty much what one would expect—the player dealt with every aspect of the theme park from the placement of buildings to the staff.  Think of what you see in theme parks like Disneyland/Disney World, or Six Flags, or whatever else, and you had to deal with it.  Rides, concessions, pricing—all of that and more.  You researched rides, developed them, dealt with upgrades—and sent staff to fix broken rides, so on and so forth.

As expected from the title of the thing, the focus was on roller coasters, and that was easily the best part of it.  You had a great interface that allowed a lot of flexibility—you could create, almost literally, any roller coaster configuration you could dream up—and particularly interesting creations won awards.

It wasn’t a very difficult game, though it wasn’t boring.  It as more—relaxing, really.  There was enough to keep the mind occupied, what with the goals, different parks, and so on, but was nice to just pop in and play.  It was a better game than one might have expected, and even today it’s a fun way to just relax and have fun.

Game play footage can be seen here.

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That’s all for this week.  See you on Monday, and have a good weekend!


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